Billy Lomardo's New Novel Looks at How to Hold a Woman
Reviewed for Eight-Forty-Eight on Chicago Public Radio by Donna Seaman
Give it TO ME slant, say some. While many readers prefer straight-ahead, point A to point B plots, other are bored by linear storylines and search for fiction that takes a more covert approach. It's a curious thing that nearly everyone accepts all kinds of fractured timelines, abrupt relocations, and narrative gaps in movies, but when fiction is structured this way, objections are raised, and the dreaded word “experimental” is waved about like a cautionary flag. Personally, I love fiction that rides like a car on a winding road. One that passes through deep shadows into the crystal light, then back into the cool, mysterious dark, and out again into the warm sun, each emergence revealing a new vista.> This is why I love the hybrid literary form known rather clumsily as a novel-in-stories.
Some examples of this type of work, Elizabeth Strout's Pulitzer Prize winning work Olive Kitteridge. Chicago writer Stuart Dybek is a seminal artist in the novel-in-stories mode. He is also a clear influence on Chicago writer Billy Lombardo. His new book, How to Hold a Woman, also delivers scenes that involve young characters: precocious 12-year-old Isabel and her symbiotically entwined brothers, Dex, 8, and Sammy, 4. But How to Hold a Woman is about a marriage under siege.
It begins with a charming, if loaded story, or chapter, titled “At Khyber Pass (August 2002).” Alan Taylor has just landed at O'Hare airport, home from observing ring-tailed lemurs in Madagascar, and he's looking for his wife, Audrey, and their three children. But only two kids are in the car, and the thing is, we never see the family whole. Sammy jabbers about baseball; sexual tension builds between the too-long-apart adults as they stop at a restaurant for dinner; they all tell Alan about how the kids got lost at a festival in Evanston, and Isabel reveals her utter enthrallment to The Great Gatsby. The curtain closes. The next story takes place two years later. Things have changed. Its breakfast time and Alan is trying to make light of Audrey's silent rage.
The third story, set two years later, is told from Audrey's point of view. She still teaches English, but Alan is no longer an animal behavior research scientist. He's a lawyer working for the Chicago Police. Why did he change careers? Audrey takes measure of her body, as though neither she nor anyone else has appreciated it in a long time. It is then we learn that tragedy has hit the family. Audrey is grieving.
Lombardo's novel-in-stories is breathtakingly concise. A book in which what isn't said exerts a powerful pressure, like the dark matter of the universe. The dialogue is crisp, combative. The body language is almost ritualized in its gestures. One day, Audrey and Dex stop to peer through the window of a dance studio, where children spin like perfect little automatons, a perfect embodiment of the family's mode of surviva, while on the streets menace pervades. A backpack is stolen. A man falls from a building. Danger and death lurk around every corner.
But this is not a grim book, nor is it a soaper. There is humor here, especially in scenes featuring Sammy and Dex, who crack each other up and drive each other crazy over swearing and the misheard words of a Jethro Tull song. This is a sexy book about married love, about sex as an affirmation of life. Billy Lombardo's How to Hold a Woman also conveys an exquisitely sensitive vision of unexpected beauty and connection, most remarkably in the story “The White Rose of Chicago,” in which an entire world of pain, sympathy, strength, and grace unfolds within the confines of a Clark Street bus. It's amazing how many insights into the dynamics of marriage and family Lombardo fits into this supple novel-in-stories, this nuanced mosaic of shattered lives gently reassembled, and newly treasured.